It’s About the All: The Role of Including Students with Learning Disabilities in Computer Science Education

In Support of ‘World Dyslexia Awareness Day’, CSforALL Addresses the Continuous Effort That Needs to be Made for Computer Science to Truly be for ‘All’ Students.

With one in five students in the United States with a language based learning disability, and dyslexia being the most common learning disability, it is difficult to see students with this disability still being widely ignored and unsupported in K-12 education, especially in computer science.

This should come as shocking news, as we have known since the 1930’s how to teach students to read with dyslexia. However, instead of meeting our students with dyslexia needs with appropriate programs, they are identified as students with special learning disabilities, and given interventions that often don’t work and ultimately impact their schedule and access to core curriculum.

In support of World Dyslexia Awareness Day, CSforALL spoke with Hollie Woodard, a high school English teacher and a strong advocate for her child with dyslexia, about her opportunity to speak with two specialists in the education community, Dr. Leigh Ann Delyser the Executive Director and Co-Founder of CSforALL and Dr. Maya Israel a professor of educational technology and is a specialist and advocate for students with disabilities in STEM and CS education.

Here is the Q&A between the three:

Hollie Woodard (HW): Why do you believe schools still treat CS as an elective? Electives are often the first classes that are taken away from students with disabilities. Where do you believe the first change must come from — how we see CS education or how we see students with disabilities?

Leigh Ann DeLyser (LAD): School systems are sticky and resistant to change — in the past CS was an elective so it is still perceived in that way. I think we need to change not the subject or the perception of students, but instead our understanding of literacy for all students. Fundamentally, it is about seeing CS as a part of what a literate citizen needs to participate in society, not just changing the individual perception of students with neurological differences or just one subject.

Maya Israel (MI): Let’s begin by acknowledging that students with disabilities are absolutely succeeding in CS education. They may require accommodations, accessible materials, and instructional strategies, but they are resilient and creative, just like their peers without disabilities. Some in the CS education community, however, still have biases about who belongs and who does not belong in CS, which results in gate-keepers limiting opportunities for students with disabilities in CS education. To change this mentality, we must educate the gate-keepers about access and inclusion. We must also examine our instructional practices, curricula, and tools to see if our approaches are limiting opportunities for students with disabilities.

HW: How can meeting the literacy needs of students in K-12 help school districts achieve the goals of CS for all?

LAD: Literacy means a lot of things, but underneath it all it implies a fluency — the ability to use certain knowledge and skills across domains. By helping all students achieve fluency in multiple domains, and practicing their literacy skills with the critical pedagogies of CS — in collaborative environments while working on real world problems — we can meet both the literacy needs of students while also advancing CSforALL goals in the schools.

MI: Literacy and reading are critical for all learners, whether or not they have a disability. How schools support students with disabilities in these areas can inform how they address other areas such as CS education. When schools have a holistic approach to literacy that includes teachers that use evidence-based reading strategies that address students’ specific needs, appropriate assistive and instructional technologies, and inclusive practices, students have a high probability of success. Similar approaches can be used in CS education so that students with barriers to learning because of a disability or other challenge can also achieve success.

HW: How impactful is it to focus on the “academic year” when creating appropriate and sustainable systems for students with disabilities in their early-education? What are the consequences of postponing?

LAD: Education is incremental. Schools and districts are moving towards coherent pathways for CS education, built around state standards or the K-12 CS Framework. These pathways start with developmentally appropriate core understandings and layer new topics and ideas over time. Delaying the start of the sequence for students with disabilities only makes it harder for them to catch up with their peers later on.

MI: There is significant research showing that early and sustained interventions make a lasting impact on students with disabilities. If we can anticipate learning barriers in CS education and then proactively build in assistive technologies and pedagogical approaches to address those barriers, students can experience success alongside their peers. We should not wait for students to fail before providing scaffolds and supports. For example, if we know that a student has a print-based disability, we should, from the start, select tools and materials accessible through a text-reader and teach the student how to use this text-reader with the curricular materials.

HW: Many States are aware of the need for CS skills and are aggressively investing in programs and grants to help prepare their students for 21st century employment. However, how can we insure that students, who have such potential in these fields, aren’t deprived from full access to courses and skills due to their literacy needs not being met?

LAD: The ALL in CSforALL is about moving beyond just “access”, more than an elective course, but to inclusive and equitable outcomes for students no matter their personal circumstances — gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or neurological diversity. Microsoft has released, in partnership with many orgs including CSforALL, a guide to Diversity and Inclusion that may be helpful for teachers and school leaders as they think about serving all students.

MI: Historically, access and inclusion were driven by lawsuits resulting in decisions mandating inclusion. Hopefully, states and school districts can avoid this scenario by considering all learners in their plans for K-12 CS education. At the moment, however, we still see some states and districts falling behind in this mission of CS for All. Therefore, a major way to ensure access and inclusion is through advocacy at the local, state, and federal level. We all need to question the extent to which students are included in CS education and find ways to address the reasons for limited inclusion.

HW: Often in the education system we talk about the ‘how to’ improve CS education for students with disabilities, and not the ‘what to do’ to improve CS education for students with disabilities. What are the resources and support programs that you would recommend for school districts, and teachers?

LAD: The first resource I would encourage school leaders to look for already exists in their districts! There are so many special education professionals working in schools. CS teachers are often isolated and expect to “go it alone”, but they should connect with the special education professionals to find opportunities for common modifications that can be represented in CS instruction.

MI: First, get to know the specialists in the school districts (assistive technology coordinators, special educators, etc.). These colleagues can become your best inclusion allies! Second, gather resources about applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to CS education — There are lots of resources about UDL that can be tremendously helpful. Lastly, look at what works in other content areas. You don’t have to recreate the wheel. If there are strategies that work for students during math, literacy, and science instruction, there’s a high probability that these strategies can be applied to CS education.

On World Dyslexia Awareness Day, and every other day, CSforALL recognizes the importances of working towards an inclusive and supportive computer science education for ALL.

In 2018, at the CSforALL Summit with AccessCSforALL, we launched the CSforALL Accessibility Pledge to rally the national community of CS education to take immediate steps to achieve accessibility for existing efforts, and ensure that future efforts address accessibility within the design phase. Currently, over one hundred organizations have taken the CSforALL Accessibility Pledge. Learn more about the Pledge here.

About the Authors:

Leigh Ann DeLyser: Dr. Leigh Ann DeLyser is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of CSforALL. With 20 years of experience as a trailblazer in CS, she has spent her career focusing on the K-12 computer science (CS) field. Follow @CSforALL and @lsudol on Twitter.

Maya Israel: Dr. Maya Israel is an associate professor of educational technology in the School of Teaching and Learning at the University of Florida. Her research lies at the intersection of computer science education and inclusive education, with an emphasis on how to empower teachers to meet the needs of all their learners, including those with disabilities. Follow @misrael09 @CTRL_uf on Twitter. Email:

Hollie Woodard: Hollie Woodard is a high school English teacher and technology coach from the Council Rock School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She is the PAECT Advocacy Chair, 2017 Keystone Technology Star, 2018 and 2019 Keystone Technology Star Lead Learner, and a member of PTAC and Decoding Dyslexia PA. As the mother of a special needs child, she is a passionate dyslexia advocate and credits much of her teaching innovation to her desire to meet the needs of her most vulnerable students.